It could've come in bright red or oxford white clearcoat. But the test truck arrived in its third available hue, black clearcoat. That was good.

Black embraces mystery and, in some minds, menace. That made it perfect paint for the 1999 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning pickup, the Darth Vader of sport trucks. (Of course, it doesn't look bad in red either. See photo above.)

At rest, it seemed like glistening evil, attractive in a forbidding sort of way--muscular, ready to spring at some provocation known only to itself.

Its stance was wide and low. Its blacked-out front grille was like a hungry animal's mouth, in this case open and ready to swallow the oval Ford badge poised between its lips. Its rear fenders were haunches, flared and powerful. And its wheels were large, 18 inches in diameter, shod with brawny Goodyear Eagle F1-GS tires.

The truck growled.

Keying its ignition brought to life a 5.4-liter Ford Triton V-8 engine, which growls enough in its normally aspirated state. But there was little normal about the Lightning. It came with an image--a pickup that could haul tail faster than many sports cars, should the need or opportunity arise. That required an engine with extra punch.

So Ford added an Eaton Corp. Gen-IV supercharger to ram more air into the engine's combustion chambers and get a better burn and more boost. The result? A yield of 360 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 440 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Power. Brute force masked by sophisticated technology.

Exhaust gases from all of that burnt air and fuel flowed through the Lightning's dual, side-mounted, slash-cut, resonant exhaust pipes. The growl--deep, gutty and primitive. Grrrrr-va-va-varrrrooommm! It got people's attention.

The Lightning was designed and developed by Ford's Special Vehicle Team (thus the SVT designation), which takes normal cars and trucks and turns them into road-chewing beasts. The Lightning, for example, once was a regular Ford F-150 pickup. It was aptly named in its reincarnation.

It moved along the highways like a panther, zipped away from stops like a streak of lightning, and vaporized the egos of some ruffians who tried to outrun it. Would you believe zero to 60 miles per hour in about six seconds? For a pickup truck?

I did not use the Lightning as most pickups are intended to be used--to haul stuff and pull trailers. I seriously doubt that anyone buying the truck would use it that way.

But Ford's engineers insist that the Lightning's sporting habits do not ruin its virtues as a pickup. They say the truck can carry a payload of 800 pounds and pull a trailer weighing 5,000 pounds.

That's doubtless true, but I chose not to check their claim, because it seemed sacrilegious to even think of using the Lightning that way. Besides, I wasn't in the mood for heavy lifting.

I just wanted to run, to play hooky from reality, to listen to that deep, menacing growl and feel the unabashed exhilaration of speed. The Lightning, in the manner of the Grand Seducer, was more than willing to oblige.

Nuts & Bolts

1999 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning Pickup

Complaints: In truth, this is a totally nonsensical truck. The exhaust note, though pleasing to the ears of inveterate hot-rodders, is irritating to people who just want to drive and live in peace. Far less expensive pickups have more payload and towing capacity. And the tires, specially designed by Goodyear for the Lightning, will be pretty darned expensive to replace--nearly $300 per wheel, according to one estimate.

Praise: It's one heck of a lot of fun. Brings smiles for miles.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Absolutely stunning. A quite pleasant ride for a truck with a short wheelbase and low-profile tires. It sticks to corners better than many sports cars. It has a lower center of gravity than most pickups, which enhances handling and stability. Brakes include power four-wheel discs with standard antilock backup.

Head-turning quotient: Snapped necks wherever it went. Not a truck for people seeking anonymity.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic is standard. You'd think there'd be a manual gearbox in this one. But manuals, I fear, are on the way out.

Safety: Driver and passenger air bags with on-off switch for the passenger side. Unless you're carrying a baby--and no baby should ride in this truck--keep the passenger bag switch "On." You'd be silly not to wear your seat belts in this one.

Capacities: Seats three people. Choose straws for who gets the center jump seat. Fuel tank holds 25 gallons; premium unleaded recommended.

Mileage: About 14 miles per gallon city/highway. Estimated 335-mile range on usable volume of fuel.

Price: Base price is $29,355. Dealer invoice on base model is $25,462. Limited range of options. Price as tested is $29,995, including a $640 destination charge. Available options include factory-installed tonneau cover, towing package and six-disc CD changer.

Purse-strings note: Strictly a want item. If you want it, buy it.